Could you find your buddy in an avalanche emergency?

You’re a good off piste skier or snowboarder. You’re confident and you carry a shovel, transceiver and probe, because you’re aware the backcountry is risky. You own the kit, yet haven’t actually had any formal training and aren’t entirely sure on the theory behind it. In fact, you’re not actually confident on how you’d react in an emergency avalanche situation…

Published on Tue 02 Apr, 2019

Sound familiar?

If you’re carrying a transceiver, but don’t know exactly how to use it to find someone buried in an avalanche, you’re putting your buddies in danger. You wouldn’t drive them about in your car if you were drunk, so why would you ski with them off piste if you’re uneducated? Ultimately, no one will want to ski or ride in the backcountry with you, if you have ‘all the gear and no idea’.

The following methods can help to ensure we never head off piste without plenty of practice and a full working knowledge of our avalanche equipment.

Consider an in-resort avalanche safety course

Many guides and ski instructors will offer an avalanche safety session, before you head off piste, to ensure you understand every aspect of your kit or whatever they have lent you. In fact, some are now listing skills-specific courses at Ongosa, where you can learn about your kit but also assessing the mountains’ conditions. 90% of avalanches are set off by the victim themselves, so learning about prevention is definitely better than the cure. For example, Henry’s Avalanche Talk run courses in Tignes and Val d’Isere on managing the risks and what to do in an avalanche emergency, which they combine with backcountry guiding.

avalanche slope gradient
Avalanche Survival Times
Chances of survival drop off rapidly after only 15 minutes, transceivers help cut-down search time

Practice with your kit, in all conditions

Know your equipment before you head up. Most resorts have easily accessible, designated areas where you can practice finding buried transceivers for free. Some examples are, Tignes Le Lac in Espace Killy, or Grand Montets in Chamonix. Engleberg even offer a free Avalanche Snow & Safety Day with local guides. The tourist board of your resort will give you information on what they offer. Don’t let bad weather be an excuse either! When the next whiteout rolls in, get out and practice with your group. Take it in turns to bury and search and be sure of your avalanche emergency ‘digging-out’ strategy. This way you’ll be fully prepared for the following morning’s powder and blue skies!

Don’t want to waste ski time? Prep at home

Of course, time on the hill is precious and you treasure every ski-day in your trip, so it’s hard to consider taking time off the slopes once you’re in resort. There are some easy options for getting clued-up on avalanches before you even leave home. Henry’s Avalanche Talk host UK-based beeper training courses*, so your valuable ski time stays as ski time. There’s plenty to read like Bruce Tremper’s ‘Staying Alive in Backcountry Terrain’ and a wealth of online sources. Including our articles like Backcountry Briefing and Planning Your Route in the Backcountry. This all means that once you’re in resort – your time is completely free for the snow (hot tubs, beer and sun-baked terraces optional), how it should be!

Henry's Avalanche Talk
Henry’s Avalanche Talk in Wimbledon

Your safety and enjoyment is up to you!

Regardless of how familiar you are with you kit, you should never let it affect your judgement. If a slope looks risky, you could have the most expensive beeper and shiniest shovel but the risk is still there. Human judgement is the only aspect of avalanche safety you have 100% control over – so use it! Venture off piste, confident and clued up: not only on your kit, but what you’re looking for in safe conditions, and you’re going to have a brilliant time.

*Team Ongosa joined the three-hour, Saturday lunchtime session at Wimbledon Common. We can recommend this course to everyone who enjoys, or aims to go skiing or snowboarding off piste: it will be relevant to those who had never seen a transceiver before, but will still offer fresh insight to those with their own kit. 

We initially worked on finding one ‘victim’ (a transceiver) buried in an avalanche (the heather), in pairs and groups. It's a really good idea to take the course with the group you'll be heading off piste with. This way, you can be sure of your strategy should you be caught out. You then focus on searching for multiple ‘victims’ alone. 

The session includes thorough explanation of the mechanics of the kit, and finishes with a talk on using a probe and the most efficient digging techniques. You can find out more here.

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